by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Even before Big Star and the Raspberries, there was Badfinger, a band that almost single-handedly gave birth to the sound that would eventually be given the tag “power pop.” While the band had the fortune of having no less than the Fab Four, the Beatles, champion the band and make them one of the first acts they signed to their Apple label, Badfinger had a very rocky existence. Music critics were slow to warm up to the band, criticizing them initially for what they perceived as too overt a Beatles influence – never an entirely fair criticism, since they did, in fact, have a style all their own, fusing Fab Four-like melodies to the muscle and kick of the best early Kinks singles, and the Fab Four seldom ever cut anything themselves quite as heavy and arena-sized as “Baby Blue” or “No Matter What.” Much more tragically, however, the band had to cope with a seemingly endless chain of legal and financial problems. At the height of their fame, producer Todd Rundgren walked out in the middle of sessions for a new album because of a contractual dispute with Apple, while the band would leave Apple themselves shortly after, only to have their first album for Warner Brothers get buried by the near-simultaneous release of their long-delayed last album for Apple, while their second album for their new label would quickly be withdrawn from the market due to a heated legal battle between the label’s publishing arm and the band’s manager Steve Polley, who had been embezzling funds from the band’s escrow account. The band tried to soldier on but soon found that they were unable to book shows or even hire new management due to overly restrictive clauses in their contract with Polley, and Warner Brothers would scrap the release of the band’s next album because of the impending litigation. The label would subsequently cease sending checks to the band, and Polley would not return the band’s calls, and Pete Ham, the most recognizable vocalist and primary songwriter in the band, would sadly take his life shortly after, the band subsequently splitting up. Tom Evans and Joey Molland would reform the band just a few years later after years of working blue-collar jobs, but the band’s financial situation never improved and the band would go through an endless series of personnel changes, and Evans would take his life as well in 1983 in near-identical circumstances as his former bandmate Ham. The band would soldier on as a live act – usually under Molland’s leadership – but no further albums would be made. Yet, despite the band’s tragic and relatively short existence, they racked up four well-loved Top Forty hits (all of them Top Twenty hits) in the U.S., and their influence would be heard in countless rock and power-pop bands for decades to come. So what albums of theirs are the most essential? Let us walk you through their full catalog disc-by-disc …
Magic Christian Music (1969, Apple)
Badfinger’s debut album certainly has its share of great moments, but it’s hurt by the fact that it’s something of a cash-in release assembled in very patchwork fashion. Seven of these cuts were actually recorded for another album entirely, a largely-Tony Visconti-produced disc by The Iveys (an early version of Badfinger) entitled Maybe Tomorrow that Apple was originally due to issue in the U.S. but ultimately decided to scrap. (The album would still get released in Japan, Germany, and Italy, however, and would finally see an American release in the ‘90s). Another three tracks (all produced by Paul McCartney) had already appeared on the soundtrack (originally slated for release on Apple but ultimately released on Commonwealth) to the Peter Sellers/Ringo Starr film The Magic Christian (starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr), while the four remaining songs are previously unreleased non-soundtrack items. Naturally, it’s not a very cohesive album, and the juxtaposition of styles can be jarring. The earlier Iveys tracks aren’t nearly as good, and they also sound like the work of another band entirely; “Maybe Tomorrow,” for instance, mimics the baroque pop of early Bee Gees, while “Dear Angie” sounds like a cross between the Hollies and the more pastoral Kinks sides and “Knocking down Our Door” sounds like an old big-band tune. But the four previously unreleased cuts are fantastic (particularly Pete Ham’s rockers “Crimson Ship” and “Midnight Sun”) and sound far more akin to the power-pop that would become the band’s trademark. The three McCartney productions are even better; Tom Evans’ bluesy rave-up “Rock of All Ages” (featuring Paul on piano) isn’t exactly creative stuff, but it’s a pretty fun rocker, while the wistful ballad “Carry On Till Tomorrow” is incredibly haunting but powerful and the deliriously catchy piano rock of “Come and Get It” (written especially for the band by Paul) deservedly became both the band’s first Top Forty hit and its first Top Ten hit. (You can also clearly hear echoes of the song in the Nirvana classic “All Apologies.”) It’s just a shame that Apple felt the need to pad this album out with old cuts they’d neglected to release Stateside in the first place because the other half of this album is so rock-solid that if they’d simply given the band the time to record another three or four new cuts to replace the seven Iveys numbers, this could have been a real monster of a debut disc.
No Dice (1970, Apple)
A much more fully-realized album piece than the band’s patchwork debut, No Dice (produced partly by former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick and partly by former Beatles road manager Mal Evans) more than lives up to the potential hinted at on the newer cuts included on the last disc. The muscular crunch of Pete Ham’s “No Matter What,” which would deservedly become the band’s second Top Ten hit, remains one of the finest power-pop singles of all-time and a true must-own for any fan of the genre; the way it fuses its Beatlesque melody to a wall of distorted guitars and handclaps is pretty masterful and a textbook example of how to create a perfect power-pop 45. But “No Matter What” is far from being the only good song here. Ham also offers up a gritty and soulful opener in “I Can’t Take It,” a first-rate ballad in “Midnight Caller,” and a devastatingly pretty album closer in the acoustic, string-drenched “We’re for the Dark,” while new guitarist Joey Molland (who replaced Ron Griffiths) makes a strong first impression with his punchy rocker “Love Me Do.” The album also boasts the original version of the ballad “Without You,” which would go on to be a massive Number One hit for Nilsson in 1972 (it would also reach the Top Ten again in the ‘90s in the form of a cover by Mariah Carey); Nilsson’s version is definitely far superior to Badfinger’s strangely unemotional rendering of the song (Ham sings the verses perfectly well, but Tom Evans’ delivery of the choruses noticeably lacks any real passion or fire), but their rendition of the song is fairly fascinating and interesting to listen to in light of the pop staple it would become in later years.
Straight Up (1972, Apple)
Easily the best album Badfinger made with Apple and truly one of the finest power-pop albums of the ‘70s, Straight Up has an interesting history. An early version of the album, produced by Geoff Emerick, was scrapped by the label, and George Harrison himself offered to produce a second version but had to withdraw from the sessions after completing just a few songs in order to attend to organizing the Concert for Bangladesh, hastily bringing in Todd Rundgren to take over for him. The band famously clashed a great deal with Rundgren, but he brought out the best in the band and went a long way towards bringing some more sonic punch to the band’s brand of power-pop, giving the album a fuller sound (particularly as far as Mike Gibbins’ drums are concerned) than what either Emerick or Harrison had previously been able to manage. The band also continues to improve in the songwriting department, this easily being their greatest set of songs yet. Pete Ham in particular is absolutely on fire on this disc, offering up the timeless Top Ten ballad “Day After Day” (featuring the great Leon Russell on piano and Harrison himself on slide guitar), the thunderous power-pop punch of “Baby Blue” (easily one of the greatest power-pop songs of all-time and one that was forever immortalized on the small screen in the final episode of Breaking Bad), the sadly-scrapped single “The Name of the Game,” the eerie, percussive acoustic grooves of “Perfection,” and the great opener “Take It All.” Evans and Molland both offer up winners as well, the former penning the guitar jangle of “Money” and the Beatlesque fitting closer “It’s Over,” and the latter penning the haunting piano ballad “Flying,” the electric-piano-driven “Suitcase,” and the fun rockers “I’d Die, Babe” and “Sometimes.”
Ass (1973, Apple)
There may be nothing on here that’s as much of a knockout (or an obvious hit, for that matter) as “Come and Get It,” and it’s certainly a disappointing album when compared to the power-pop majesty of No Dice and Straight Up, but the often-maligned Ass (their last disc for the soon-to-be-defunct Apple) actually holds together better as an album piece than the band’s debut. Sadly, Rundgren bailed out of the project after completing just two songs (his place was taken by Chris Thomas, later to produce Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols, and the Pretenders) and his gifts are certainly missed here. But it’s not the production that hurts the album so much as the fact that the band sounds a bit depleted here. Pete Ham strangely only contributes two songs here, both of them very slow ballads; “Apple of My Eye” is pretty good, even if it’s unfortunately not quite as strong or as catchy as its title, but the near-eight-minute “Timeless” is far too long for its own good. Tom Evans similarly only offers up two songs, but “Blind Owl” boasts a great rolling groove, and the chiming ballad “When I Say” is excellent and is arguably the best track here. Drummer Mike Gibbins offers up the charming novelty of “Cowboy” – not an essential cut, but one that’s refreshingly more playful and upbeat than anything here from Ham or Evans. Ironically, given the band’s reputation for being one of the first great power-pop bands, only Joey Molland seems to have any interest here in rocking out or doing anything all that up-tempo, and his excellent brass-laden rocker “Get Away” and the James Gang-like blues-rock of “Constitution” go a long way towards giving this album some much-needed energy and life, while his excellent ballads “Icicles” and “I Can Love You” rank right up there with Evans’ “When I Say.” But Molland’s valiant efforts to lighten the mood aside, the album simply lacks too much in the way of power-pop and immediate hooks and Ham’s few contributions here are too lifeless to make this album anywhere near as much fun as the last two discs were. Still, there are enough gems here to make this just as vital a purchase as Magic Christian Music, and this tends to be a slightly underrated album.
Badfinger (1974, Warner Bros.)
It’s hard to say whether or not the band’s decision to leave Apple for Warner Bros. was a smart business move – the band would fail to have any chart singles during its time with the label – but this is a wildly dramatic step back in the right direction and the band seems a lot more full of life here than they did on the overly ballad-heavy Ass. Ham’s lilting album-opening ballad “I Miss You” sounds like anything but Badfinger and opens the album on a jarring note, and the band unsuccessfully experiments with adding horns and steel drums to, respectively, “Matted Spam” and “Where Do We Go from Here.” But the band sounds more like its usual self elsewhere, and Ham fares much better on the mid-tempo acoustic rock of “Shine On” and, even better, the excellent Beatlesque ballad “Lonely You,” which easily outshines either of his songs from the last disc. Still, Ham has yet to get back to writing the power-pop he perfected with cuts like “No Matter What” and “Baby Blue,” and he still seems just a bit off his game. Nearly all the best moments here come from Joey Molland, who pens the snarling rock of “Island” and, best of all, the album-closing rave-up “Andy Norris,” easily the band’s catchiest rocker since “Baby Blue” and a song that likely would have made an obvious pick for single release if not for its odd title (which has absolutely nothing to do with the song itself, the title simply being a tip-of-the-hat to an engineer who worked on the record). Unfortunately, the release of this album coincided with the long-delayed release of Ass, which resulted in both albums selling poorly, so not a lot of people heard this album at the time, but it’s certainly a more fun and moderately more consistent listen than Ass and deserved a better fate.
Wish You Were Here (1974, Warner Bros.)
This album quickly got withdrawn from the market due to a nasty lawsuit between the band’s label and their manager (who had secretly been embezzling money from the band), so, like its predecessor, not a lot of people heard this album at the time, but this was easily the band’s greatest outing since Straight Up, and you can even make a case for this being perhaps the better masterpiece of the two. Teaming up once again with Chris Thomas, who really steps up his game here and plays a big part in making this album seem several years ahead of its time, the band sounds fully creatively reinvigorated here. Ham in particular noticeably seems much more energetic and enthusiastic here than he has on any disc since Straight Up, and he’s thankfully taken up writing up-tempo rockers again; if his punchy opener “Just a Chance” isn’t his best song since “Baby Blue,” the mini-epic “Dennis” or “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” (boasting an impressive multi-layered chorus) are both just as deserving of that title. Molland still remains in good form, offering up the Beatlesque ballad “Love Time” and the fiery “Should I Smoke,” while Evans, though much quieter here than normal, offers up a fine cut in his lone offering, the electric-piano-driven “King of the Load (T).” Perhaps most surprising of all is that drummer Mike Gibbins offers up two of the best cuts here, “You’re So Fine,” and even better, the stunning piano-driven symphonic rocker “In the Meantime.” Part of the reason this disc works so well as an album piece is that the band has also taken the experimental step of fusing some of these songs together, Gibbins’ “In the Meantime” being linked directly to Molland’s “Some Other Time” as one big medley, while Ham’s “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” segues effortlessly into Molland’s “Should I Smoke” to give the album a second medley and one that makes a jaw-dropping album closer. This is the sound of one of the most underrated bands of the ‘70s at the top of their game.
Airwaves (1979, Elektra)
It’s sadly not a full-blown Badfinger reunion – Mike Gibbins, who had recently resurfaced as the drummer on the massive Bonnie Tyler hit “It’s a Heartache,” is absent, while Pete Ham had tragically taken his life a few years earlier – but the band’s first and only album for Elektra (helmed by Eddie Rabbitt’s producer and co-writer, David Malloy) finds Tom Evans and Joey Molland reconvening after a five-year layoff from recording. Naturally, without Pete Ham and his recognizable tenor voice (and equally distinctive songwriting style), this never quite fully feels or sounds like a Badfinger album, but it’s made worse by the fact that the band avoids power-pop almost entirely here (except on Evans’ “Look Out California,” which unfortunately has a really cringe-inducing chorus) and wanders too deeply into soft-rock territory (never quite to the same degree as, say, fellow Elektra act Bread, but still way too close for comfort), the band even ill-advisedly venturing ever so slightly into disco territory on “Sympathy” and “The Winner.” The album also feels quite under-cooked – overlooking the thirty-second title track, there are technically only eight songs here, and they’re not as strong as they ought to be for an album of this sort of brevity. Evans’ strings-drenched “Lost inside Your Love” (with Nicky Hopkins on piano) is a good piece of songwriting, even if you can just as easily imagine it as a David Gates solo single, and hisalbum-closing piano ballad “Sail Away” is genuinely great and quite stirring. Molland also gets in a minor gem of his own with the minor hit “Love Is Gonna Come at Last,” which has a really solid chorus and managed to reach #69 on the Hot 100. But even those songs aren’t likely to go over well with those without a stomach for soft-rock, and this is not music that should have been put out under the Badfinger name. This is easily the least essential Badfinger album.
Say No More (1981, Radio)
So, so much better than it has any right to be, Say No More finds Evans and Molland (newly signed to the short-lived Atlantic subsidiary Radio, best known for serving as the home of covers-medley specialists Stars on 45) reconvening for a second reunion affair and joined this time by an entirely different lineup, one that includes former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. It only sounds marginally more like the Badfinger of old – there’s a bit too much overreliance on piano throughout, and the band actually sounds more like the Raspberries or the Knack than their old selves on “Because I Love You” – but Evans and Molland have thankfully set aside the soft-rock stylings of Airwaves and are rocking out with abandon here, to the extent that there are hardly any ballads at all. It’s not a terribly artistic or ambitious record, but Evans is writing better and catchier melodies here than he has in years, and the piano pop of “Hold On” (which reached #56 on the Hot 100), the shuffling “Three Time Loser,” and the Guess Who-meets-Cheap Trick grooves of “Come On” are hard to resist. Molland is also back in fine form as a songwriter and offers up the great rockabilly of “I Got You,” the power-pop of “Because I Love You,” and the synth-laden new-wave-styled closer “No More.” It may not be artistic as, say, Ass, but it’s undoubtedly a more fun album than that disc, and this is a much, much stronger note for the group to have gone out on than the confused Airwaves, even if it never comes close to reaching the heights of the best Apple and Warner Bros. albums.
Head First (2000, Snapper)
Actually recorded in 1974 during the band’s tenure with Warner Bros. as the follow-up to Wish You Were Here, this album is a rough mix of an unreleased full-length that was nixed for release at the last minute by the label as a result of the band’s messy legal and financial battles with Steve Polley. It actually may be for the better that this album was scrapped, because it’s hard to imagine this disc being as warmly received by critics and fans as Wish You Were Here was. For starters, Chris Thomas is absent this time around, his seat in the producer’s chair taken over by Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who had helmed the earliest Kiss albums. This is only a rough mix, mind you, and not the master tapes that were actually turned in, but if this mix is any indication, the album has far more in common in terms of production and sound quality with the Apple albums than with the elaborate and shimmering craft of Wish You Were Here, so it feels like a bit of a step backwards. Secondly, Joey Molland has left the band at this point, his place taken by former Fortunes member Bob Jackson. Lastly, this isn’t exactly one of their more commercial records, if only because their business problems have seeped into the music, songs like Evans’ “Hey, Mr. Manager” and “Rock & Roll Contract” being just a little too lyrically personal to appeal to most fans. Like Ass, there are no songs here that quite qualify as being a knockout (although Gibbins’ acoustic toe-tapper “Back Again” continues the drummer’s hot streak and Ham’s power ballad “Keep Believin’” and “Lay Me Down” are both awfully good), but it all holds together well as an album piece. Snapper has also included a second disc of demos of unused songs from the same sessions. Overall, the package is a very fun and fascinating listen, even if the rough mix of the proper album is something of a disappointment when compared to the more carefree pop of their self-titled outing for Warner Brothers and the adventurous power-pop experiments of Wish You Were Here.
There are several good Badfinger compilations to pick from, starting with Capitol/Apple’s 1995 The Best of Badfinger, which includes five cuts each from their debut and No Dice, seven from Straight Up, and four from Ass. The 2000 Capitol/Apple package The Very Best of Badfinger downplays No Dice and Ass (sadly omitting “Better Days,” “Apple of My Eye” and “Icicles” in the process) but delightfully adds “I’d Die, Babe,” “We’re for the Dark,” and the previously unreleased “I’ll Be the One,” along with four mostly well-selected highlights from the two Warner Brothers albums (although “Andy Norris” or “In the Meantime” would have been preferable to “Love Time”). Avoid the 2013 package Timeless … The Musical Legacy, which fumbles by trying to be too comprehensive, even including a cut from Airwaves, leaving off too many good songs in the process (particularly “When I Say” and “Midnight Caller”). The Rhino package The Best of Badfinger, Volume II rounds up cuts from the two Warner Bros. discs and Airwaves, along with four cuts from the then-yet-unreleased Head First, but the mysterious absence of “Dennis,” as well as the omission of “Andy Norris” and anything from Say No More, makes it feel fairly incomplete, and you’re better off just picking up the two Warner Bros. albums now that they’ve finally been issued on CD.